The establishment of the Trivandrum Water Works, which supplies drinking water to the city, unfortunately created a rift between the river and the people

The drinking water for residents of the capital city comes from the upper stream of Karamana river. Four pipe lines feed the modern city from Aruvikkara on the outskirts of the city. The Aruvikkara dam came up in the 1930s and has been supported by the Peppara reservoir dam, further upstream, which was built in 1983.

Aruvikkara dam is a tiny one overlooking a small quaint Devi temple, which has a sanctum from which one can see and hear the rushing river. The river has to flow over a very rocky bed here. The temple also is situated on a huge rock and is a protected monument. The unique offering in the temple is the feeding of fish for which there is a “meen kadavu” right in front of the dam. Believers make this offering in the hope of getting rid off warts on their bodies. Unlike other dam sites, entry to the dam is not permitted and visitors are confined to the recently built modest ‘Shiva park’.

T.K. Velu Pillai in the Travancore State Manual (1940) paints a picture of promise about the ability of Karamana river and Aruvikkara dam to quench the thirst of the city. He states: Favoured by nature with liberal supply of fresh water from a 100 square mile (259 Sq Km) catchment area consisting mainly of virgin jungle and so favourably situated as to receive the south-west and north-west monsoons amounting to an annual rain fall of about 150 inches (381 cm), the Karamana river, on whose banks the town is situated, supplies all the water that is now required for the city and will without any difficulty, meet the demands of the city at its maximum growth.” The manual also mentions the average daily consumption as 7,00,000 gallons (3.1 Million Litres/Day - MLD), but the dam (Aruvikkara) being able to meet 4 1/2 million gallons (20.5 MLD) for projected population of 1,35,000 in 1961.

The population is now inching on to 10 lakh and the capacity has now been enhanced to about 300 MLD. The oldest line is intact and arrives into the filter house at Vellayambalam. It feeds raw Karamana water by gravity and is processed and distributed to the south zone of the city. It has a capacity of 20 MLD. An 86 MLD plant at Aruvikkara feeds clear water into the observatory tank, on the highest spot in the city. The old tank is augmented by a new one beside it and together feeds the central zone of the city. Yet another 72MLD plant at Aruvikkara feeds the over-head tank at Peroorkada and caters to places that are situated on elevated areas, including Peroorkada, Ulloor, Medical College and so on.

The ‘Japan Kudivella Padhathi’ (JICA-funded) plant of 74MLD at Aruvikkara is meant for the east zone of the city and gradually running up to its full capacity. Its tanks are in PTP Nagar. In addition to these, there are pump houses at Adimadakkukayam and Kundamankadavu. Though originally meant for the town, the scheme now caters to the city as well as some adjoining panchayats. With flats mushrooming, the total 300 MLD is beginning to feel the strain. Connecting of the Neyyar to the Karamana river, as in the past, is now being considered again.

Peppara dam built by the Kerala Water Authority in 1983 has a catchment area of 83 square km and receives an average rain fall of 481 cm. The 423m long dam unifies all upper tributaries of the Karamana river and water flow to Aruvikkara is regulated to suit the needs of the city. There is also a 3MW hydel power station at Peppara.

The Trivandrum Water Works that receives and distributes the Karamana water to the city is 80 years old. A. Padmanabha Iyer, a prominent resident of Karamana who authored more than 150 books, writes in his book The Viceregal Visit To Travancore, 1933, about the opening of the water works by the then Viceroy and Governor General of India, Lord Willingdon on 11 December, 1933 in the presence of Sri Chithra Tirunal, the King of erstwhile Travancore. “… the Maharaja then requested His excellency to turn the key of the tap and the wheel of the valve which controlled the spray fountain and the hydrant jet outside the pandal and declare the waterworks open…” To Willingdon, the waterworks added to “the essentialities of healthy life in the town”. The water works was named after Willingdon.

In hind sight, the Trivandrum Water Works marked the estrangement between the river and the people. The water that ran through the water lines in the city became the safe drinking water and Karamana river and also ponds and wells suffered neglect. Many wells became “potta kinar” (defunct wells) and were eventually filled. City ponds also suffered a similar fate. The ponds and the connecting channels to and from the river gradually transformed into garbage collecting channels and drains. The Kochar, which fed the Padmatheertham from the Killiyaar, a tributary of the Karamana, has vanished.

Before Peppara dam was built, Karamana river also had a history of raging floods. During the monsoon, it was filled from bank to bank with a large volume of water rolling in a strong current to the sea. The river is richest in its discharge in June and November. The people in Karamana village and nearby areas suffered terribly when the floods came, which sometimes even affected the NSS College for Women.

Most of the old-generation houses in the city have the Karamana sand in the mortar used in construction. Even today when sand-mining in this river is banned, the media often exposes the clandestine operations that keep deepening the wounds of the Karamana river.

(Continuing the weekly series on the Karamana river, written by Dr. Achuthsankar S. Nair, head of the Department of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, University of Kerala. He is a music and history buff. Contact the author at sankar.achuth@gmail.com)